I try to follow the rule that you never serve something to guests unless you’ve tested the recipe. I learned my lesson the hard way when I tried to improvise crab dip for an apartment full of people and ended up with gritty mush that tasted like old crabstick. Ever since that wasted tub of lump crab, I practice recipes before banking on them.
Sticking to this rule almost always requires breaking it. Unless you’re content to taste test a vat of lasagna solo, you have to have a hungry audience willing to give an opinion before the dish’s coming out party. The special circle of testers has to be honest, have good taste, and be really forgiving. And nice. Very, very nice, especially to young cooks who are deeply insecure about their cooking chops. When I present a new dish, I like to pretend that I’m all cool and “oh, it was nothing. So easy. I’ll send you the recipe!” Really I’m thinking, “pleasepleaseplease like this. I know it’s too salty/sweet/creamy/dry. Is it too late to take this back? What if there’s a dog hair in there?!?! Why am I blushing?” But then I take a breath and relax. I’ve been through the routine before. As trite as it sounds, I know that even if they don’t love it, they’ll still love me.
My discerning and unfailingly kind boyfriend, Ed, is my primary taste tester. I know I have a winner when he declares, “I could eat this once a week. It’s that good.” I know it’s back to the drawing board when he says something “has a nice spice.” It’s his gentle way of saying, “there’s only one flavor in here that’s borderline tolerable and I am teetering on that border.”
My parents have been my taste testers for years and have done their best to protect my feelings. My dad, a lifelong picky eater, has a lot of experience avoiding food he doesn’t like. He mushes and minces his serving to create enough white space to fool the unwise into thinking he’s had a few bites. On the other hand, if he likes it, he actually cleans his plate. My mom will sing and dance and mmm-mmm-mmm through every bite if she’s a fan. If she’s not a fan, she has two moves: 1. she evades giving a thumbs down by playing the objective reporter: “when did you add the onion?” “Is the baking powder old?” or 2. she goes silent. While everyone else is chatting, she will take a bite or two, sneak to the trashcan, and scrape her plate.
Ed’s family is my newest set of taste testers. I haven’t decoded each member’s tells yet, but I have certainly tested the bounds of their politeness. They have cheerfully gnawed through rubbery corn muffins and remained stoic after being socked by too-garlicky potato salad. Despite some near misses in recent memory, my average with them must be over .500 because they didn’t hesitate to heap mounds of this beta version broccoli salad on their plates. We settled in to eat and my inner weakling started her whining, “the garlic is too brown – it’s bitter! This tastes like oil! Why are my palms sweaty?” I told myself to please be quiet. I fiddled with my silverware, trying not to stare at the family as they took their first bites. I listened with hope/fear: crunches, followed by mmmmms, followed by forks hitting plates to spear more, followed by a flood of praise. Success. This recipe’s a keeper.
I adapted this slightly from one of my favorite cookbooks, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, by Melissa Clark.
Garlicky Sesame-Cured Broccoli Salad
Makes about 5 side servings.
1 ½ tsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
About 2 lbs broccoli (that’s about 2 heads or 1 freakishly large head from your CSA), cut into bite-size florets
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, crushed or minced
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
Large pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1. Dissolve the salt in the red wine vinegar. Pour over broccoli and toss to combine.
2. Flavor the oil: heat the oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic and cumin and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Don’t let your garlic get too brown or it will taste bitter. A little toasty is okay.
3. Remove from heat and add sesame oil and red pepper flakes. Pour over broccoli and toss.
4. Chill until ready to serve, at least 2 hours. Taste for salt and more red pepper before serving. (If you’re going to serve it in the short term, Clark recommends leaving at room temperature for at least 1 hour before serving. For long-term planners, Clark advises chilling it up to 48 hours.)